Single-Use Plastics: Is The End In Sight?

  Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

“We have taken a fundamental step to take better care of Chile and the planet,” announced Sebastián Piñera on Twitter last week. The country’s President was commenting on the bill voted into law by Chile’s Chamber of Deputies that will see plastic bags banned across the country, taking an original proposal to restrict their use in coastal cities much further. And the bill’s passing, ahead of World Environment Day, makes Chile the first country in Latin America to approve such an outright ban.

Also announced last week were plans by the European Commission to restrict single-use plastics across member states, including bans on items such as straws, plates and cutlery, followed this week by a pledge by the Indian government to ban all single-use plastics by 2022. And while such moves are obviously to be applauded, in some parts of the world certain nations have been tackling the problem of plastics for over a decade.

In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to ban thinner plastic bags after they were found to have choked the drainage system during devastating floods. And in Rwanda, non-biodegradable polythene bags have been illegal since 2008. Indeed, it has been Africa that has been at the forefront of the fight against plastic bags, with at least 15 countries on the continent, including South Africa and Kenya, having enacted some sort of ban. 

  Narrator Sir David Attenborough explained to viewers of the BBC's Blue Planet II that it was likely the dead newborn pilot whale calf being carried around by its mother had probably perished because her milk had been contaminated with plastic.

Narrator Sir David Attenborough explained to viewers of the BBC's Blue Planet II that it was likely the dead newborn pilot whale calf being carried around by its mother had probably perished because her milk had been contaminated with plastic.

According to the Earth Policy Institute, one trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year, or nearly 2 million a minute. These bags contain polyethylene and cannot biodegrade. Instead, they clog up waterways and damage agricultural land – which prompted the ban in Rwanda – and eventually break down into smaller pieces, known as microplastics, that leach toxins which pollute the earth and enter the food chain. And as was made harrowingly clear by the BBC’s recent Blue Planet II TV series, animals often mistake plastic bags for food or nest-building materials, which leads to poisoning, choking, entanglement and blocked intestines, often resulting in death.

Eliminating plastic bags is seen by many as a necessary step towards decreasing the amount of waste and pollution in the long term. And while economic concerns may have at worse halted or at least hampered efforts in the past to cut or try to curb our consumption, increasingly bans and taxes are being introduced across the world. Here are just some of the countries, states and cities that have bans on plastic bags already in place.

Africa
South Africa, Uganda, Somalia, Rwanda, Botswana, Kenya and Ethiopia all have total bans in place, and Morocco signed its ban into law on 1st July 2016.

Asia
Bangladesh introduced a strict ban in 2002, following floods that submerged two-thirds of the country in water that were caused by littered plastic bags. China has had total bans in effect regarding plastic bags since 1st June 2008, and in India, cities including New Delhi, Mumbai, Karwar, Tirumala, Vasco and Rajasthan all have a ban on the bag.

  In 2013, volunteers from the environmental charity Tangaroa Blue did a ‘clean sweep’ of the 7km Chilli Beach in North Queensland and gathered 5.5 tonnes of waste material /  Photo: Tangaroa Blue.

In 2013, volunteers from the environmental charity Tangaroa Blue did a ‘clean sweep’ of the 7km Chilli Beach in North Queensland and gathered 5.5 tonnes of waste material /  Photo: Tangaroa Blue.

Australia
Although the nation as a whole hasn’t banned lightweight bags, the states of South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, along with some cities, have independently introduced bans.

Europe
In France, the city of Paris adopted a full ban on plastic bags effective January 2007, Italy banned the distribution of plastic bags that are not from biodegradable sources in 2011, and Macedonia banned plastic shopping bags in 2013.

North America
The United States doesn’t have a national plastic bag ban, but states such as California and territories including American Samoa and Puerto Rico have banned disposable bags, and single-use, disposable bags are effectively outlawed in Hawaii. In Canada, the city of Montreal banned single-use plastic bags at the beginning of this year.

South America
Mexico City’s ban on plastic bags became effective in April this year.

While the shift towards total bans, rather than the imposition of taxes, is gaining momentum, astonishingly, given the prevailing mood, legislation is being introduced in some parts of North America to effectively ban bans. Michigan, Idaho, Arizona and Missouri have all recently enacted similar laws, with proponents defending them as a way to protect businesses from having to comply with additional regulations. So, while in some parts of the world one can possibly see the eventual demise of single-use plastics, elsewhere there is clearly still much work to be done.

Related Reading:
Brian Skerry: Ocean Soul
All That Glitters, Really Isn't Gold